State can’t pass judgement on a person’s convictions; rather it must ensure individual’s freedom of conscience

Free India cannot tolerate mobocracy and in order to avoid it, the State, being a guardian of the Constitution, has to prove that it’s not discriminating against anyone on basis of religious identity

State can’t pass judgement on a person’s convictions; rather it must ensure individual’s freedom of conscience

Dr Abraham Mathew

A full bench of the Karnataka High Court concluded its hearing in the hijab case on Tuesday, upholding the state govt order restricting students from wearing the same inside the premises of educational institutions.

Three days before this judgement, the Civil Aviation Ministry had cancelled the order of Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS), the regulatory authority for civil aviation security, that restricted Sikh employees working at airports from carrying kirpan, a religious curved dagger. The decision came in response to Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee’s plea (SGPC) to revoke the order since the kirpan is one of the five symbols of faith in the Sikh religion which distinguishes them from others.

The approaches of State machineries to two different minority faith groups seem to be contradictory especially with regard to the use of religious symbols in their own working areas. This raised questions regarding the neutrality of the State in implementing laws.

Along with the ‘hijab’ issue, the state of Karnataka has been discussing the imposition of an anti-conversion law in the state, contending that conversion to Christianity has been taking place on a massive scale in Karnataka.

Former minister and current BJP MLA Gulihatti Shekhar raised this issue in the assembly claiming that Christian missionaries have been fooling people and luring them into the Christian fold by various methods, including fear, bribery and superstitions and added that his own mother has been in the influence of Christians.

It has to be noted that this criticism is coming from a state where Christian population has declined from 1.91% in the 2001 census to 1.87% in the census of 2011.

In a multicultural and multi-religious context, it is possible to have different speculations, understandings and narratives about the identity of communities and groups. These suspicions may lead to animosities. From Indian experiences, we realize that suspicions and speculations can also be socially engineered and sustained with political motives.

During the British colonial period in India, there was a fear among religious communities, especially elite Hindu communities, that Christian missionaries, with the support of the British and their military power, would overpower Hinduism and its customs. Therefore, Hindu princely states started introducing laws restricting religious conversions — mainly during the latter half of the 1930s and 1940s. Over a dozen princely states, including Kota, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Raigarh, Patna, Surguja, Udaipur and Kalahandi had such laws.

Contrary to general assumption, British colonialism in India operated on different principles, especially when the British were a tiny minority ruling over a massive population. It was also in a context where a group of people including some officials of British East India Company like Charles Grant were campaigning for official endorsement to start missionary activities in India.

But this proposal was denied by Lord Cornwallis, the then Governor General. It was mainly due to a fear that missionary activities may harm the commercial interests of the company. The best example for this can be seen in the denial of entry to William Carrey, a British citizen and a Baptist missionary in Bengal, a British-ruled state, in 1793. He then went to Serampore, a Danish colony at that time for his work.

The disassociation of the British regime with missionaries became even stronger after the 1857 revolt. A proclamation made by Queen Victoria in 1858 guaranteed toleration of all religions and customs of her Indian subjects. Furthermore, missionaries who predominantly were from the lower strata of the society had not been given support from British officials.

In fact, handling the culturally and religiously plural India was not an easy task for the British. Moreover, the administration had to handle financial scandals and deteriorating standards of British officials in India.

There were seemingly two opposing propositions of Orientalism and Anglicanism that surfaced during this time to improve the quality of British regime in India. Orientalism suggested ways for British officials to learn Indian culture to have a diplomatic approach to different faiths and customs while Anglicanism proposed correction of Indian culture and systems with English way of living.

Within this context, evangelical politicians like William Wilberforce and others tried to convince the parliament that missionaries could be used as a medium to link with common people to initiate reformation, especially by providing English education. The charter act of 1813 could be seen as an outcome of these ideological and political engagements.

Referring to 1813 charter act, Gauri Viswanathan in her book Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India observes that

“ALTHOUGH CHAPLAINS had hitherto been appointed by the East India Company to serve the needs of the European population residing in India, the English Parliament had consistently refused to modify the Company charter to allow missionary work in India. The main reason for government resistance was an apprehension that the inhabitants would feel threatened and eventually cause trouble for England's commercial ventures”.

In spite of all this, it is a fact that the presence of missionaries and their collaboration with British regime, although hyphenated, provoked a stream from the adherents of Hindu faith. They suspected the presence of Christian missionaries as a danger to their faith and therefore began to counter missionary movements by organizing themselves in a missionary format.

It began in the latter half of 17th century and has continued to remain in the Indian scenario in different forms, reminding the masses that Hindus are in danger if the other faiths like Christianity and Muslims are active.

However, this narrative was not well accepted by the subaltern masses because for them, ‘Hindu’ was a symbol of subjugation and exploitation through the strict practice of caste system. Therefore, a group of victims of caste system found a platform for their awakening in Christianity and many converted to Christianity in large numbers, surprising even the missionaries.

Within this complex matrix of the socio-political period, Dr BR Ambedkar, in one of his speeches at Mumbai (1935), titled ‘What Path to Salvation’, discussed at length why he and people of his caste must convert to another religion.

He explained his search for another religion as being a result of his bitter experiences within Hinduism, where he had been treated as an

untouchable. He highlighted conversion as a tool for progress for the untouchables. He went on to say: “…for you, for spiritual as well as for material gains conversion is must. Some persons mock and laugh at the idea of conversion for material gain. I do not feel hesitant in calling such persons as fools”.

Exposing elite-driven religions, Ambedkar opined that religions which speak only of predicaments of souls may serve the leisure of the rich, offering very little to downtrodden communities. Religion, he felt, should have a social responsibility to support their adherents' aspiration for liberation, which is significant in today’s context.

When the meaning of conversion, which has sociological and theological significance in many religions, is being reduced to a means for material gain, Ambedkar reminds us to recognize that it is a narrative cooked up by the elites.

Hitherto, the stream which took a stand against Christian missionaries was active in political realm and therefore, they could mobilize their motions against conversion a number of times in Parliament after India’s independence, but none were enacted.

First, the Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill was introduced in 1954, which sought to enforce “licensing of missionaries and the registration of conversion with government officials.” This bill failed to gather majority support in the lower house of Parliament and was rejected by its members.

This was followed by the introduction of the Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill in 1960, “which aimed at checking conversion of Hindus to ‘non-Indian religions’ which, as per the definition in the Bill, included Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism,” and the Freedom of Religion Bill in 1979, which sought “official curbs on inter-

religious conversion.” These bills were also not passed by Parliament due to a lack of support.

However, now when the BJP is in power, the same steam who took a stand against missionaries is organizing anti-conversion laws although the percentage of Christians in India has fallen from 2.5% to 2.3%.

The principles of John Locke, a British philosopher and enlightenment thinker, have been influential in the development of democratic systems of governance in administrations around the world. Particularly in dealing with the question of religion and the State, he asserted that the inward persuasion of an individual leads them to select their religious affinity.

Therefore, the State has no power to pass judgement on a person’s convictions; rather it has the responsibility to ensure an individual’s freedom of conscience.

For Locke, the cornerstone of liberty is religious freedom because for him, the pursuit of happiness springs from the individual’s own inner convictions.

The observations of Locke have to be taken seriously in India since religion plays a major role in the public and private life of every individual here. Religion in India goes beyond just convictions and plays a vital role in determining one’s own identity.

Highlighting the responsibility of religion to create an atmosphere for spiritual development, Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar stressed that if any religion undermines an individual, then that individual should consider changing that religion.

Coupling spiritual development with affirmation of dignity of people, Ambedkar even argued for material progress as part of one’s religious life.

However, the ruling of the Karnataka High Court in the hijab issue highlighted the limitation of Article 25(1) which guarantees the freedom of conscience, the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion to all citizens. The High Court underscored that the above-mentioned freedoms are subject to public order, health and morality. This will give a space for the court to decide whether any religious practice is confined to constitutional morality.

Yet it also exposes a dangerous element within it, which is the definition of ‘public’. A mass can counter any acts and practices of any other faith groups which can be interpreted as ‘public disorder’. In Gurugram, when Muslims worshipped in nearby gardens due to the space limitation of the mosques, it was countered by fanatic groups, which was interpreted as ‘public disorder’ while RSS drilling and daily exercises have been conducted in the public gardens without any interruption. The ambiguity within this context is democracy can be replaced by mobocracy.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote in his weekly newspaper, Harijan, “Hindustan belongs to all those who are born and bred here and who have no other country to look to. Therefore, it belongs to Parsis, Beni Israels, to Indian Christians, Muslims and other non-Hindus as much as to Hindus.

Free India will be no Hindu raj, it will be India raj, based not on the majority of any religious sect or community but on the representatives of the whole people without distinction of religion”.

Free India cannot tolerate mobocracy and in order to avoid it, the State being a guardian of the Constitution has to prove that it is not discriminating anyone on the basis of religious identity.

The State also has to be vigilant in assuring that its impositions should not restrict the inner convictions and their expressions of its citizens.

(Views are personal)

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